A smart, accomplished woman who knows a thing or two about health decides to kick her habits up a notch. Maybe she’ll summon a hefty dose of willpower and start doing yoga, or eating more leafy greens, or going to bed earlier – the particulars don’t matter. What does matter is the outcome. For a few days or maybe weeks, she adheres to her plan. Then she gets busy. Or stressed. Or tired or bored or distracted. And, well, you know the rest. A month down the road, she finds herself giving into a packet of Tim Tams and streaming Dead To Me at 11pm, her willpower as crumpled as that limp spinach that’s been in the crisper for two weeks now – her new health goals just a memory.

Is our hypothetical woman weak? Completely lacking in self-control? Nope. She’s just putting too much faith in willpower, a concept that, in itself, turns out to be flawed. “We used to think that the people who were able to adopt healthy habits had rock-solid willpower,” says psychologist Dr Wendy Wood, who studies how we form and change habits. “But after studying how changing habits actually works, we know that these people actually rely on a variety of other strategies that are far more nuanced.”

Indeed, the whole notion of willpower is now being called into question. Health experts have long viewed it as being like fuel in a car. We each have a fixed supply of self-control; the more we use it throughout the day, the more depleted our reserve becomes. But a lot of new research has poked holes in this limited-supply theory. And studies show that once a lifestyle change gets embedded in your everyday routine, it becomes automatic – which takes willpower largely out of the equation, Prof Wood says. That means when you want to improve your life (say, overhaul your diet or adopt a regular exercise routine), the real key is to form a new habit – which, according to research at University College London, can take anywhere from three to 12 months. How do you get there? Turn the page for five new research-backed approaches. No willpower is required to try them out.

REFRAME YOUR THOUGHTS

There’s some evidence to show that thinking about new healthy habits as things you get to do rather than things you have to do can help you stay on track. In a recent study at Yale University in the US, people were trained to think about the positive attributes of healthy foods. The researchers told them, for instance, that broccoli was crunchy and delicious and that if they ate it they’d feel good about themselves. The results were striking. 

“We found that we can actually get people to increase their cravings for healthy foods,” says Hedy Kober, PhD, who headed the study. 

In a second study, her team trained people to engage in that same type of thinking repeatedly. They discovered that if people practised looking at healthy foods and considering their wonderful qualities, it helped them make better dietary choices and eat fewer kilojoules in everyday life. 

It works the other way too, Prof Kober says. Her studies have shown that people can substantially reduce longings for, say, doughnuts by thinking of all the negatives of eating them, like how they fill blood vessels with triglycerides and diminish energy. “Participants in a related project not only wanted the desired food less,” she says, “but also had reduced activity in the part of the brain that’s active during cravings, and increased activity in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain associated with cognitive control.”

GET COMFORTABLE WITH UNCOMFORTABLE FEELINGS

Have you ever inhaled several slices of pizza after a stressful day? (Who hasn’t?) This sort of thing happens because our emotions influence our self-control. To keep sadness or anger from derailing your good intentions, face the underlying emotion head-on the minute you feel a craving.

“Pause and think about what you’re feeling,” suggests Liz Chamberlain, PhD, a psychologist who incorporates mindfulness into her work. “Try to identify what’s going on, whether it’s stress or boredom or worry,” she says. “Then just sit for a few minutes and observe it.” 

As you’re reflecting, she suggests, remind yourself that you’re not alone, that everyone feels these emotions sometimes. That act of self-compassion can ease the intensity of feelings. Stopping to sit with your emotions also buys you time so that instead of making a choice you’ll regret – like eating a muffin or skipping your fitness class – you can decide consciously what to do next.

So, for example, if you reflexively turn to chocolate in moments of stress, adopting this strategy can help: In that moment of “urge”, pause and think about what feelings are behind this “need” and brainstorm what will really make you feel better. Maybe it’s calling a friend. Other times it may be to roll out your yoga mat and do a few relaxing postures. If you really need something sweet, perhaps a cup of herb or fruit tea or an apple can do the trick. Thinking, “I recognise this feeling, and I know it will pass,” can also help, says nutritionist Laura Cipullo. 

A US study found that low-level anger, sadness and anxiety lifted within a few minutes whether people ate their favourite comfort foods, a neutral food like a muesli bar or nothing at all. Sitting with your feelings could actually make you feel as good as eating a cookie – and you won’t regret it afterwards.

VISUALISE YOUR FUTURE SELF

Research from the disparate worlds of economics and psychology has found that people typically care less about future outcomes than about present ones, partly because immediate rewards – cheesecake, a second glass of wine – are more compelling than some imagined later payoff. But research shows that if you imagine your future self, you’ll be more motivated to adopt protective behaviours. 

For example, studies have found that graphic pictorial warnings of tobacco’s risks (images of diseased lungs, cancerous lips and rotting teeth) are more effective in reducing cigarette cravings and increasing intention to quit smoking than written warnings. Likewise, when researchers showed people virtual representations of themselves losing or gaining weight in relation to exercising or not, these people worked out more than participants who didn’t see images of their fitter (or fatter) selves.

Imagining your future lifestyle can help too, says Virgil Wong, co-founder of Medical Avatar, a company that helps people see, via 3-D images, the potentially big results of small daily decisions. “Try visualising – with sketches, apps, photo collages or written notes – a realistic happier and healthier version of yourself,” he suggests.

“What choices does this future person make in terms of nutrition, fitness, sleep and managing stress? What’s one simple change you can make right now that moves you toward this version of yourself?”

Nutritionist Carrie Dennett says this strategy can work when you imagine the short-term future too. “If you have the urge to sleep in on the weekend instead of exercise, think about how doing the workout will help you feel more energised to tackle the day,” she says.

ADD SOME FUN

One key to adopting a new habit is rewarding yourself. Researchers have shown, for instance, that rats train themselves to navigate a visual maze faster when a treat is at the end. 

By looking at the animals’ brains, the scientists discerned that the reward helped the habit form more easily.

“When a behaviour is rewarding, our brains respond by releasing dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with addiction and pleasure – and that reinforces the desire to do it again,” Prof Wood says. As a result, she says, experts now believe that one of the most powerful ways to promote habit change is to make the new behaviour as pleasurable as possible.

In fact, Prof Wood, who has struggled with diet and exercise, put this to the test herself. “I started eating at restaurants that cook delicious vegetables, because it helps me look forward to eating healthy food,” she says.

She also began watching competitive cooking shows while on the elliptical trainer. “I love those shows, and I normally never have time to see them,” she says.

Now, when she doesn’t feel like working out, she uses the shows as motivation. “Humans are pretty simple,” she says. 

“We like to do things we enjoy, so it makes sense to make healthy behaviours fun.”

STOP FIGHTING YOURSELF

One of the biggest problems with willpower is that it sets up every choice as a struggle: you versus your urges. That never-ending battle can erode self-control by making you feel ashamed of every minor slip-up. Thoughts like, “I’m a failure if I have a handful of chips,” are why minor lapses often lead to major landslides (“I already blew it, so I might as well eat the whole bag.”).

Getting your body and your mind on the same team helps. “People who successfully change their eating habits focus on what they can have, rather than what they can’t, so they avoid that internal struggle,” says Traci Mann, PhD, author of Secrets From the Eating Lab. “They do things like make delicious vegetables and eat them first.”  

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